See the universe “not as a collection of things or events existing apart from awareness of them by observers, but as manifested thoughts in a universal mind.” Physicist John A. Fleming, inventor of vacuum tube & oscillation valve
While researching Caribbean whales for my book in progress An Act of Ambition, I stumbled upon the above quote. I’ve been stumbling lots the last few months, dealing with the devious, disastrous handling of my mother and her estate; the sudden death by suicide of a family member; and an unwelcome, unsettling visit by an unstable, troubled person. It’s been a whale of a year in the world at large as well—earthquakes, raging fires, invasions, plagues. The virus that shall not be namedmorphed into a multi-year spanning thing that’s changed our way of life. Places once familiar are no more—their boarded windows gawk at us like missing teeth. We cope and endure life’s upheavals in a variety of ways. Some withdraw, some turn to mind numbing substances or a therapist, while others engage in mindful meditation or retail therapy.
That made me wonder how much of our acquisitions might be figurative pain pills? Why does this seeming need to own things begin literally in babyhood—with favorite blankets and binkies? We arrive in this world naked and leave with next to nothing per Piaget (unless we are royalty or stipulated in a will we would be ‘taking it with us.’) The dash inbetween born-died is an entirely different situation. Why haven’t we latched onto the collective community idea like a baby latches onto its mother’s breast and just share everything? Or is that too socialistic or communistic a concept to address?
Why can’t we be more like the Orca whale, a creature that was a land mammal until it waded back into a deep, wet habitat 50M years ago? Whales don’t own possessions or real estate; they are matriarchal and long lived. Their physiological functions, it’s been observed, synchronize across large pods. And by pod, I don’t mean the 8×10 foot cube that sits in your driveway until you fill it with stuff. Then it’s fork lifted onto an 18 wheeler and whisked away to the land of a zillion other cubes until you summon it (or forgot to pay the storage bill). Whales may even be telepathic or communicate via specific splashing sounds, or by blowing bubbles. That doesn’t sound so different from the distinct noises humans make. But how often are our transmissions understood? And what do the things we own (or covet) transmit to others about us?
For weeks, I’ve been overanalyzing and pondering what I should leave for posterity? I bear no resemblance to the M Kondo’s of the minimalized, marginalized world. I don’t do KonMari folds; I don’t even make my bed until I’m ready to sleep in it again. I’m a collector, not a hoarder. My books number in the 1000s and are everywhere—even in the salle de bain. As autumn is my favorite season, I’ve amassed an eclectic assortment of Halloween memorabilia, including the pointy toed, black-white stocking striped witch that flies into a tree, ghoulish pumpkins, and mini faux gravestones. Then there’s the unmatched set I call bleached skulls of my enemies (jesting).
Can someone tell me why I have 5 sets of china: willow and fiesta ware; 2 sets of heirloom china; green Depression glass dishes, and a 100 odd sized plates from around the world hanging on walls? You could say I’m a gatherer of refined tourist trash—metal and porcelain boxes; key rings from Kalamazoo to Cairo; match books; silver spoons and half a dozen display racks; pub signs, shot glasses, and lapel pins. No Picassos reside in my art collection, but I did paint Van Gogh’s vibrant Sunflowers and my pillow collection includes the mille-fleurs tapestry Lady with a Unicorn. There are 100s of esoteric items; stained glass window panels… I haven’t lost my marbles. All 700+ of them, including cat’s eyes, reside in bowls and decoupage boxes. Some might think I’ve inherited a fortune (cookie).
I don’t have a dead insect or dead animal collection. Nor do I have a rare coins/gems, or tobacco tin collection or 75 matching salt and pepper shakers. I’m not a philatelist, though one of my ex’s was. Dozens of vintage postcards still bear scars where he ripped off the stamp. Sometimes I wish I had more room for the doll houses and furniture I once collected but have given away. Where do all these things reside? That would be in boxes/bins/trunks/bowls, display shelves, drawers, closets, bookcases, garage, attic, basement, and spare rooms. Others keep their stuff in car trunks, storage units, sheds, or pods; as well as in safe deposit boxes and safes.
Are people with collections and interesting baggage more fascinating than people that abhor clutter—or want to do all their dusting in five not fifty minutes? Archaeologists and Anthropologists seem to think so. And what about the people that have stuff but hide it, disguise it, or boldly idolize it? They have cupboards built into walls and glass lined display cases; or they use huge armoires and clever coffee tables to hide the TV/stereo, bodice ripper books, and general clutter. Idolizers dedicate a climate controlled room(s) to their precious possessions. Or they enshrine the object(s) of their desire behind a locked, bullet proof glass case with special lighting.
Not only humans, but other mammals possess stuff—monkey’s and birds steal bright, shiny objects or build nests from discarded trash. A monkey in Gibraltar once stole my ice cream, then returned a moment later and grabbed the cone. Dogs hoard or bury bones and favorite toys. Foxes steal eggs and squirrels squirrel away things… Friends have told me I’m a generous person; I can also growl when someone ‘touches my S&^%!’ This may have developed after handing down to siblings items I valued. I also had a distant cousin who was a bit of a kleptomaniac. We’d make bad jokes and ask what she was ‘taking for it.’
There are possessions and there is, according to certain religious factions, the possessed. There are takers and givers, and non-fiction books and proofs that not so long ago, people were enslaved and considered property—things without a will or soul. It’s still happening via human trafficking, sexploitation, arranged marriages, and sweat shops. Can things be possessed as in haunted? There are many tales regarding sinister, cursed furniture, weapons, Dybbuks and Jinn trapped inside boxes and Aladdin’esque lamps, or the straw interior of a dummy. I handled the alleged haunted doll Robert at the East Martello Museum in Key West, Florida decades ago. Read more about him in the book I mentioned earlier.
Some people lose or abandon their stuff, or it’s stolen or destroyed. Most folks buy new stuff, though a few go in an entirely different direction and adapt a zen-like, bare necessities attitude. My mother had her possessions taken away and sold, except for a few choice items my sister kept for herself or sold/gave away. Medical and psychological practitioners recommend whittling the worldly belongings of a person with dementia down to a few items. This is supposed to ease decision making and stress. She’s unanchored from her moorings and drifts through the present by recalling her past. What she carries forward is a flesh and blood legacy and a sense of inevitability.
In the middle of processing info about holding on and letting go and downsizing versus upsizing, I received an email from my amazing, psychically attuned friend; the subject heading was ‘Belonging.’ It sent me in an entirely different direction as well. It made me ask new questions. Do we belong to our belongings or only rent or borrow them? Do belongings indicate to what or whom we belong? Are certain things, like wedding rings, Jackson Pollack paintings, and designer hand bags a figurative tattoo or cattle branding? If so, why do we submit to these often painful events? It seems more than simple self-expression, and more like an urge to wear a neon status sign. The intent regarding belongings, I’m guessing, is to tell a story about ourselves via an object(s) or to provoke a psychological effect, as in ‘wow, he must be rich if he drives a $200K car’ or that woman wearing designer sunglasses and floppy hat must be famous because the guy escorting her looks like a bodyguard.
My friend didn’t mention it, but another word had also been on the tip of my tongue lately, ‘purge.’ While I’m moving towards less stuff, more quality, I’m still mildly mourning things I no longer have. I don’t even like the sound of the word, which means to be rid of something unwanted or undesirable: an ugly gift, expired milk, a 2000 carb meal. The word has been used in the title of three recent films, all of which are about purging people, as in murder and genocide. I mourn the golden fairy tale book I could read at age five that my father tore into pieces because I read it at the breakfast table. I lament old love letters tossed by a paramour, and a glorious gypsy dress shredded by an ex. A marvelous camera was ripped off my shoulder as I played distracted tourist in Annapolis, Maryland; and then there are more delicate losses, a womb, a secret revealed, illusions about others…
Madonna once sang ‘I’m a material girl in a material world.’ As for me, I’m a curator and collector, a lover of beautiful, useful, and interesting stuff. I own that appellation. It’s not likely I’ll become more zen than I already am; I’m not really a meditator, more a pre-meditator. I am also a (youngish) elder oxymoron contemplating embracing clichés like less is more (per A van der Rohe); tidy desk, tidy mind; out of sight, out of mind; what’s mine is yours; and what you see is what you get. Nope, can’t do it. No urge to purge; not letting go yet.
Perhaps I can start with a few small, snakeskin shedding steps. I do have 100s of ebooks, however, despite having thinned my menagerie of books, albums, and photos, I enjoy seeing smiling spines in every room, and the framed glamour shots of friends and family standing sentry. Okay, I’ll donate a set of china, the drawer of windup toys, 2 sets of oversized luggage, and trunks of crocheted and patchwork quilts. I am also nomad’ish, though this rolling tumbleweed does gather dust, twigs, discarded paper, and all manners of effects considered art by some and trash by others. I will practice being more lint roller, less a thing magnet.
The owner of the 1950’s Kellerman Lodge said at the end of Dirty Dancing, ‘it’s the end of an era.’ Bellbottoms and fringed suede vests likely won’t be back in style. They can go. People don’t drink out of small, ornate porcelain tea cups (pinkies out) in 2021, or ping glassware to see if it’s real crystal. But my Welsh granny introduced me to afternoon tea with her Willowware and my matching kid’s version. While we dunked cookies, she related the sad love story portrayed on the china. I still use the set in her memory. I bid on and acquired items of sentimental value from my mother’s estate. I’m still not sure why. These weren’t items I coveted or needed. I told myself I was keeping the objects ‘for posterity’s sake,’ despite my daughter and grandkids saying they wanted nothing. I’ve considered burying a large metal coffin in the back yard, a time capsule of things for a future generation of kin who might be ‘wowed’ by these antique marvels. What do you think?
Like Sir John Fleming, I will likely oscillate about the thinginess of things for the foreseeable future. My modest collection of crystal balls is revealing nothing regarding what should stay, what should go. Nor was my assortment of peculiar pendulums helpful. I lean towards the Velveteen Rabbit approach—to keep all the stuff I love until it’s too worn to be recognizable. That’s not practical. Sartre said ‘to be, to do, to have’ is a category of existence. Efficiency experts say pare it down to 100 important things or what you would save if your house was on fire. Otherwise, your stuff owns you instead of the other way around. Label me selfish, sentimental, un-American; I’m not letting go.
Envoi: I thank my lucky stars and scars, travels near and far, and tantalizing things in jars for enriching my life with stuff that makes me sing—brings joy and good will. I’ve caught and released a houseful of things. Now there’s more. I’ve worn and been adorned by closets of bling, and made, gave away or sold treasures untold. Now in my three score year and plus… I turn from thing lust to the experience. Will the clingy thingy letting go, as Emily D. described about snow, be rapid or slow? Will it be 365 times 50 more days of Yule—or will there be a duel? A duel like Eugene Field described, with “gingham dogs and calico cats, who side by side on a table sat…” Or will I cling, not letting go, until it all turns Velveteen…and all traces of what something was rub off?